NolaAnarcha

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Five

what has become of nola.com

IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM, CHEERLEAD 'EM

"I'm available for speeches and consultancy gigs!"
At the risk of setting up a straw blogger, there is a category of blowhard I cannot bring myself to link to: media-pundit éminences gris who know little or nothing of the Times-Picayune and yet have confidently diagnosed its cause of death.

Of course it died; it's a newspaper. Open and shut case, according to these hoary experts.

Within journalism, talking about how important digital media is & how newspapers are dead is an article of faith, a touch-wood tic. Everyone's being laid off all the fucking time, and the only protection is to superstitiously acknowledge the inevitability of this, often and audibly.

Part of the journalist identity is already cynically knowing everything. Especially to those over forty, the suggestion that a real journalist could be blindsided by these rapid catastrophic industry changes is nearly as threatening as the changes themselves.

All who would not be left behind must chant the mantra: Print is dead!

Print is dead! The louder you shout it, a strange thing happens-- your wrinkles and white hairs become less visible. Your chin tightens; your baldness vanishes beneath reforestation. Say it louder, shout it louder: Print is dead! Dead trees, dead newspaper! Bray it, shout it, sit on panels and declaim it. Post it on the Tumblr your daughter helped you make. Louder, louder-- and the debt from your kids' college education, the mortgage, your partner's medical bills-- all the things that mark you as a product of the pre-internet generation, the frailties making you dependent on your career in this "dead" and "dying" medium, begin to ebb away.

Buy more progressive glasses frames-- thinner lenses, sleeker, younger! Get the newest iPhone to fumble with, so the twenty-something new hires who don't make eye contact will know you're one of them. Print is dead! Let me hear you say it, bitch! Louder louder: PRINT IS DEAD! Never mind the storied traditions, going back to Thomas Paine, going back to Gutenberg, never mind your mentors and their mentors-- they were all fools! You're hep; you're riding the inter-wave, you're running with the hunters! You ain't old, you still got it baby, you so cutting cutting edge. Print is dead! Let them hear you preach it, preach it. PRINT IS DEAD, PRINT IS DEAD.

Say it loud, and pray that the powerful are listening.

Maybe you'll be spared!

Ha ha... yeah, right.


A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF NOLA.COM

Early version of NOLA.com, 2001
( screengrabs from web.archive.org )
Whether or not print is dead, the Times-Picayune has been killed. It's time we took a look at what we're being offered in its stead, the widely reviled website NOLA.com. Back we go, via web.archive.org, to the site's beginnings.

The Times-Picayune is owned by Advance Publications and NOLA.com by Advance Digital, two (ostensibly) different corporations, each with its own chain of command and both answering to the parent company,  Advance.net. To further confuse matters, Advance Digital was 'til recently called Advance Internet-- a subsidiary of Advance.net. The whole byzantine arrangement strikes me as a fiduciary shell game, but then I never did have a head for business.

The newspaper and NOLA.com were separated by a few miles of CBD and a vast gulf of culture and practice. Ashton Phelps Jr., the paper's publisher for three decades (right up until Ricky Mathews was sent in to kill it off), was the fifth generation of his family to run the Times-Pic. It was an institution steeped in centuries of tradition. At the paper's grim, bunker-like concrete building on Howard Ave., employees were obligated to wear jackets and ties to work.

In contrast to the newspaper's morbid cubicles, NOLA.com has an "open" office plan and gigantic windows offering a view of the Mississippi river. Those who aren't making sales calls generally wear whatever they like to work.

NOLA.com, like its regional sibling sites (mlive.com, masslive.com et al.), was at the outset curated by its own in-house editorial staff. The NOLA.com editors had complete control over what went where on the site's front page, and it was in that sense like a newspaper. Different stories or packages from different news categories-- sports, weather, JazzFest-- were given varying visual prominence on a sometimes hourly basis by human editors who used their judgement to sift and elevate whatever they felt was of importance, significance or interest.
Colorful: NOLA.com in 2007
( from web.archive.org )

Determined to make the site as interactive as possible within the limits of the Advance templates, what the NOLA.com editors chose to promote in the pre-Katrina years was mostly live cams, forum discussions, multimedia presentations and user submissions. The Times-Picayune's "content" was consigned to a single column, though as years rolled on, that column became slightly longer and eventually subdivided into categories.

The Newhouses saw their newspaper-affiliated websites as being separate, online-only entities, just as the newspapers were print-only. This was a stupid strategy, but it's how the Newhouses did things. At Conde Nast (another Newhouse property) even an influential print publication like Gourmet Magazine was denied its own website for decades; its recipes and articles went into the website Epicurious.com.

It's not so strange, then, that those in charge of NOLA.com for its first decade saw themselves as helming an independent media endeavor, a local portal site of which the Times-Picayune's articles were just one-- possibly minor-- component.

On the Times-Pic side, attitudes towards the site varied. Some pushed for the paper's content to have more prominence on the website, while others were more concerned that the site was giving so much of the newspaper away free.

These weren't mutually exclusive opinions, and there were areas of broad consensus: almost everyone at the Times-Pic found it difficult to countenance their work appearing side-by-side with photos and blog entries by NOLA.com staffers, unpaid web-only freelancers and unsolicited user submissions.

"From the start," Kevin Allman says in the Gambit, "the two 'platforms' have not gotten along."

The dawn of the NOLA.com user commenting feature and the attendant avalanche of racist filth pushed many Times-Pic staffers to a more negative view of the site, though the racism was at least in part editorially institutionalized. As defender of New Orleans and promoter of its culture Deborah Cotton pointed out (an article I first saw on a NOLA.com accountability blog by social-justice lawyer Billy Sothern), Nell Nolan's reporting on the ritzy, predominantly-white Uptown social scene always appeared with the comment feature disabled, to spare the subjects of her writing any criticism.

After the '05 federal flood and the spotlight it put on NOLA.com's usefulness, tensions between the website and the paper escalated. Post-Katrina, NOLA.com made a number of hires from outside the city and an unprecedentedly outspoken culture of antagonism towards the Times-Pic developed within the website's editorial team. This cold-war mindset played out in bizarre ways: NOLA.com staff were forbidden from exchanging e-mails or Instant Messaging with longtime colleagues at the paper, and those who remained even socially friendly with Times-Pic employees were attacked as turncoats. It was an era of paranoia, dysfunction and frequent managerial screaming fits, all in the name of competition between internet and print.

One former freelancer suggests it was a cynical maneuver to pit the institutions against one another. "There were plenty of forward-looking people at Howard Ave. Everyone was already talking about digital everything. The writing was on the wall, the only question was who would survive. That was where the tension was. It was like Boston in the 70s... make the Irish and blacks compete for the same economic niche."

Long, gone: NOLA.com, 2010
( from web.archive.org )
Bloodsport, for the amusement of the Newhouse Caesars. Another former staffer I spoke to disagreed with this characterization. "I don't think it was anything tactical, or part of any larger plan. [The feud] came from a tragic situation towards the top of the NOLA.com editorial masthead. It was a symptom of serious mental health problems within the leadership, which were resolved through firings. Most of the people I knew at NOLA.com had journalism backgrounds and respected the paper."

In early 2009, multiple NOLA.com staffers including the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor were laid off, and their positions were eliminated. Editorial authority was vested in a new "Director of Content," James O'Byrne, who came over from the Times-Pic. Around that same time, a new template (still in use at NJ.com) was implemented at NOLA.com.

In this new template, seen to the left, NOLA.com staff had very little say in what was featured on the site's front page. A new digital content team drawn mostly from the Times-Pic was empowered to make those decisions, and the new front page was almost 100% Times-Pic content.

The Times-Picayune's section editors, reporters and photographers, whose job descriptions suddenly expanded to putting their own work online, could under this new template feature or "pin" stories atop each of the various front-page categories (News, Sports, Living, Business), though no-one could adjust the order in which the sections of the homepage were laid out. Amid the rollback of the Newhouse Pledge and looming layoffs throughout the Advance empire, what editorial control remained over NOLA.com's front page had shifted unmistakably to the newspaper. This limited editorial control was one piece of a larger transfer of what had been NOLA.com duties to Times-Picayune staffers-- additional responsibilities that came without additional pay.


PROGRESS: EDITORIAL CROWDSOURCING

A few months back, there was another sea change. The newest version of NOLA.com, the infamous "yellow journalism" (now beige journalism) Advance Internet template, did away with the multiple front-page categories.

The Way We Live Now:  NOLA.com, 2012
( Flickr image from skooks )
NOLA.com's front page is now just an open, running aggregatory gutter of everything posted on the site, ranked by when the story (or rather, blog entry) was posted. There is no longer any room for editorial discretion, almost no means to feature or call attention to particular items. It's entirely automated.

Coinciding with the layoffs of hundreds and the killing of the Times-Picayune newspaper, this new NOLA.com front page is a single undifferentiated stream, a firehose of slurry. Murders, letters to the editor, the latest doings of the Zephyrs, legislation in Baton Rouge, lottery results, a cake recipe, the summer hours of the St. Charles Parish swimming pools, the indictment of an NOPD officer, a video Doug MacCash shot of an art happening, a developing tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, recaps of television shows... all of it swirls indistinguishably into a single high-volume nola_river that flows endlessly off the page, carrying potentially valuable news away on a tide of less timely, less crucial information.

About the only way to keep older stories in view on NOLA.com now is for the site's users to comment on them; the most commented-upon stories of the past seven days are automatically listed in a sidebar widget. Why should fusty old editors get to make such decisions? When Li'l Wayne failed to cut the lawn on his Kenner property, the hootin' hollerin' cachinnatin' commenters pushed that crucial story immediately to the top of "most commented," where it remained for a week. By contrast, when the Times-Pic finally posted a story about the offices of Women With a Vision being attacked by an arsonist, it slipped off the homepage forever within minutes of its posting, swept out of sight by other updates.

The story of NOLA.com is the story of progress. At first NOLA.com had its own in-house editorial control. Then, a restricted set of editorial choices was assigned to already-overworked Times-Pic employees. Now the Times-Pic staffers have been fired, and editorial decision-making-- which local stories matter, what news a visitor to NOLA.com will see-- rests in the hands of the site's unpaid, mostly out-of-town commenters.

In part six, we'll see that same shift play out in reporting and photography. For now, let's take a minute to mourn the loss of human editors. What's replaced them is the journalistic equivalent of the grocery-store automated check-out machine, with your actual food selection determined by the tastes of St. Tammany and Little Rock.


ADDENDUM: A MORE INFORMED REAMING-OUT

Everyone hates the new NOLA.com site. My own criticisms are rooted in the approach to journalism it represents, but for a more technical understanding of its shortcomings I turned to a web usability expert, whose entirely negative response I excerpt below:
This is a nightmare of data design... There is a general lack not only of visual fidelity, but of consistency. No single typographic style, layout principle or even color palette ties the site together. This schizophrenic disjointedness violates a basic principle of journalism, that the medium itself, the paper or in this case the site, should exude a sense of trust, respectability, a straightforward approach to telling the stories of the day.

...The site also includes absolutely no features for what is referred to as accessibility, the simple coding practices that allow users who are blind or have bad vision to use screen-readers and other software to parse the site. Accessibility practices are a basic and inarguable part of web coding, as good web developers believe the web should be accessible to all. Not that the [newsprint Times-Pic] was accessible to the blind, but if you are going to argue for all of the advances of the digital form that nola.com is championing, taking the 5 fucking minutes to make your site accessible would have been an easy move.

...It used to be that unpopular and underhanded grabs for power or attacks against dignity were swathed in a kind of shiny aesthetic suaveness that made the pill easier to swallow. Not so with nola.com.

THE MURDER OF THE TIMES-PICAYUNE


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper

Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley

14 comments:

  1. A brilliant expose, as usual! Keep up the good work of intelligent and righteous indignation. I'm going to not cut my lawn in solidarity with Lil Wayne after the way Nola.com treated him.

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  2. It's well written, but you should make clear that the employees at nola.com are not behind the site's design. They just have to implement whatever Advance rolls out to them. Blaming them is not productive or fair.

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  3. You must have read a different article. I don't see where the author is blaming nola.com employees for the design. The way I read it is that they have no control over the changes that have been made by Advance.
    Another great post! Looking forward to the rest of the series!

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  4. Well done. But is there any business logic to such a crappy site? More clicks if its more confusing? Or is it just mortal incompetence?

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  5. RSS feeds, y'all, RSS feeds. you can edit your own times picayune!

    no ads for just reading the headlines, either.

    RSS feeds. death to nola.com

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  6. Say what you want, but I will remember nola.com commenter "Astrid" fondly until the end of my days.

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  7. I look forward to the exciting conclusion to this series. I hope the link from my blog can help others share your words of wisdom.

    Brian Howton

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    1. Here's the link: harmonyneworleans.wordpress.com

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    2. Thanks, though I'm unclear how "words of wisdom" is compatible with your blog's actual characterization of the series: "an opinion is barely expressed, rather the series is one of finger-pointing and name-calling... the anarchist at Nola Anarcha rants and raves, knowing that no one is listening."

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  8. I'm enjoying reading through this series. You might find this of interest:

    http://wadekwon.com/2012/07/13/its-official-america-hates-advances-news-sites/

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    Replies
    1. I've been following your blog(s) with great interest-- thanks for all you do! In part six I directly cite one of your entries.

      I'd recommend all readers of this series check out both wadekwon.com and the Media of Birmingham blog to which you contribute. They're the two best online sources I know of for information on the appalling wholesale slaughter going on in Alabama.

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  9. Too many links on this page! Here is one more Skin Whitening.

    ReplyDelete